Chapter 4: Solitude of a Birdcage

THEN

Alex was a good kisser. The best kisser, actually. He didn’t do too much, nor too little. There was always the right amount of moisture. He always knew what to do with his hands. Sometimes he kissed Maxie gently and slowly, running his fingers through her hair, pulling back every few minutes to look at the emotion in her expression, in her eyes. Other times, he was hungry and aggressive. He’d kiss her with longing and fervency, holding her body impossibly close to his, exploring her as if he didn’t have enough hands to touch enough of her at once.

Tonight was one of those nights.

They lay on the couch, limbs entwined, his lips ravishing her from mouth to chest, his hands conquering the rest of her. His hands seemed to be everywhere at once, touching everything. Her heart hammered inside of her, heat radiated from between her legs. She bit down on her bottom lip to keep from crying out every time his fingertips found the right spot.

She wasn’t ready for this. She couldn’t go where he was taking her, yet she couldn’t find the words to stop him. She was like a puppet, and Alex had complete control, manipulating her with just the flick of his fingers.

“Alex,” she managed, breathlessly. She opened her eyes, blinked, but immediately felt them drifting shut again. “Wait, Alex.”

Finally, he stopped kissing her and pulled back. “What’s wrong?” he asked, brows furrowed.

She paused, struggling to gather her bearings. “Nothing,” she said after a moment. “We’re just…” She swallowed hard. “I think we should relax.”

With a sigh, Alex rolled over to lie beside her. Frustration was evident in his features, though he said, “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.”

She buttoned her pants and fixed her shirt before turning to face him. “Are you upset?” she asked. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have let us get so carried away.”

“We’ve been getting carried away a lot lately.”

She nodded.

“Maybe that means something. Maybe it means it’s time. Have you ever considered that?”

She hadn’t. Because she knew it wasn’t time. Often, she wondered if it would ever be time. If she would ever trust Alex enough to give him every part of her. After nearly six months, what part of her did he have? He held her interest most of the time, with his stories of his work and his travels and his experiences as a successful photographer. He always had so much to say, so much to tell, and Maxie was a gifted listener. But what about her heart? Didn’t he need to have her heart before she gave him her body? You’ll never love him, a voice in the back of her head echoed. Why is he even here? And then an answer came: Because he’s yours.

Yes, that was it. Alex belonged to her. Who else could she say that about? Maxie had been engulfed by Van’s world when she was just fourteen. She’d lost both of her parents. She had no siblings. She never kept many friends. Just Savannah Trimmel, whose family gladly opened their arms to the newly orphaned girl. They took her in, cared for her, loved her, accepted her as one of their own.

But she wasn’t.

Kathy was Van’s mother. Tony was Van’s brother. The girls they hung out with were Van’s friends. They shared Van’s bedroom growing up; as adults they shared an apartment, but that was Van’s as well. They ate the same food, occupied the same space, breathed the same air. Maxie had forgotten what it was like to have something without Van, to have someone. Until she met Alex.

In the beginning, he’d been her escape. He’d called her his ten-second girl; their relationship had gone from zero to sixty before she’d even been able to comprehend what had happened. Sometimes she’d disappeared with Alex for days, with no word of where she was going or whom she was with, with no worries of Van ever finding out unless Maxie wanted her to. Even after she’d grown indifferent to his presence, she’d remained in it because the thrill of having something of her very own never died. She’d spent all of her free time with him for nearly two months before introducing him to her roommate. Then, one evening, she’d cooked dinner, and they’d all eaten together. Once Alex left, Van had wrapped her arm around Maxie’s shoulders. “I know you like this guy,” she’d said, “and I’m happy for you, believe me. But I think you can do better. I mean, he talked about nothing but himself all night.”

Maxie had turned to her friend, a bit taken aback at first, and then smiled. She hadn’t meant to, but she’d been unable to help it. “So you’re the only one who’s allowed to talk about nothing but yourself all night, huh?”

Van had recoiled as if she’d been slapped. “I didn’t… I mean… That’s not what I said, Max. I just don’t like the guy, that’s all.”

Well, it turned out he hadn’t taken too well to Van, either. It’d been then that Maxie decided to keep him around indefinitely.

“Max,” he said, climbing back on top of her and pulling her from her thoughts. “I’m sorry, okay? I don’t mean to pressure you. I just want you so bad. You’re practically my girlfriend. I care about you. I can really see myself being with you for a long time. You can’t expect me to not want to take it to the next level.”

“Yeah, but…” But what about love? What about forever? She didn’t have a chance to ask, not before his lips were on her again, his hands touching her again.

Suddenly, Van’s bedroom door opened and she strutted into the living room. Alex groaned loudly and rolled back over as Maxie sat up to give her friend a onceover. Van spun around to give Maxie the full view of her impossibly tight and even more impossibly short dress. It hugged every curve of her figure, and left not an inch of her long, flawless legs to the imagination. Maxie whistled her approval.

“What do you think?” she asked.

Alex propped himself up on his elbows and raised an eyebrow. “I think it’s snowing outside.”

Van glared at him. “I wasn’t asking you. Max, what do you think?”

With a small chuckle, she replied, “I think you look amazing. But it is cold outside.”

Van shrugged. “Well, I don’t dress for the weather, I dress for the occasion.”

“Which is..?”

The corners of her lips turned up into a wide smile. “I have a date. With Isaac.”

Maxie nearly choked on the knot that suddenly materialized in her esophagus. Isaac? She hadn’t heard Van talk about Isaac in over a week. “You guys are still in touch?” she asked, trying to remain enthusiastic, but the disappointment weighing down on her was hard to ignore.

“Yep. He’s taking me to dinner, and then to a jazz show.”

“You don’t like jazz.”

She shrugged. “Tonight I do.”

Maxie’s eyes fell to Van’s red pumps. “Are those mine?”

bought those!” Alex snapped.

“Oh,” Van said with a small shrug. “You never wear them. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

I mind!” he said.

“And I guess you didn’t think I’d mind if you used my nail polish again either?”

Van looked down at her red nails. “It’s just nail polish.”

My nail polish. And my shoes. All you have to do is ask!”

“Alright! I’ll just buy you a new bottle of nail polish! And you don’t even freaking wear these! They’re four hundred dollar shoes, just sitting in your closet, collecting dust! Alex, you should be thanking me.” He scoffed. The scowl didn’t leave Maxie’s face. “I’m sorry,” Van insisted, “I really didn’t think you’d mind.”

Defeated, Maxie sat back. Did she mind? Sure, it annoyed her when she found Van wearing her shoes, or borrowing her purses, or using her fifteen-dollar nail polishes, but was that what annoyed her that night? “I don’t mind,” she said. “You look beautiful. Have fun, okay?”

Van clicked over to the couch and leaned down to kiss Maxie’s forehead. “Thank you,” she said. “For everything, I mean. The compliments, the shoes, getting hit by Isaac’s car on Christmas—”

That’s who you’re going out with?” Alex cried.

“—And letting me have him. He’s really great, Max. I have a good feeling about this one.” When was the last time she had a good feeling about a man? Maxie couldn’t remember. Van entertained, dated, slept and carried on with countless men, but in the end she only compared them all to her father. Arnold Trimmel was like a wound that wouldn’t heal.

Maxie smiled weakly. “Good. I’m happy for you,” she managed.

Flashing one last smile, Van pushed her pin straight locks over her shoulder, and headed out the door. Once she was gone, Alex turned back to Maxie. “Let her have him?” he asked. Maxie shrugged. “Was he interested in you first or something?”

“No. Van just thought I may have been interested in him. Which I wasn’t. So, really, I didn’t let her have anything.” With a sigh, she added, “He was hers for the taking.”

“Whatever. I’m just glad she’s gone,” he said, shifting his weight back on top of her. “Where were we?”

If Maxie had had any excitement left, Van took it with her when she left. Raising her hands to his chest, Maxie stopped him. “Let’s just watch a movie or something, okay?”

His face dropped, but he didn’t object. Maxie almost wished he had. As she got up to get a movie, she wished that he would get upset, annoyed, fed up, and perhaps leave. She just wanted to be alone. Alone to dwell on the things that could have been, the things that weren’t.

 

When Maxie woke the next morning, Alex had already gone. She wondered if he had even waited out the night, or if he had snuck away right after she fell asleep. The thought only passed through her mind; it really only meant there was one less person to cook breakfast for.

Shaking her hair free from its tie, she pulled on an oversized sweatshirt and made her way to the kitchen. She glanced at Van’s door as she passed it, wondering what time she’d returned home from her date. An aching resentment rose in her gut that she quickly suppressed. Isaac was just a man, after all. What did it matter that Maxie’s thoughts had remained constantly on him since the moment she woke to find him in her hospital room? He was just a man. There would be others. Others that her best friend wasn’t interested in.

In the kitchen, she put on a pot of coffee and began to mix batter for pancakes when she heard Van’s door open. “You’re up early,” she called, glancing at the clock on the oven. “It isn’t even noon yet, you still have about three and a half more hours—”

“Maxie?”

The unexpected voice made her jump. She spun around, nearly turning over the whole bowl of batter, and gasped. “Isaac?”

He stood before her, wearing nothing but boxer briefs, and an expression of conflicting surprise and remorse. Maxie’s eyes moved down the length of his body—his flawless, godlike body—and for a moment, the reality of the situation nearly got away from her.

Isaac was standing half naked in her kitchen. It only meant one thing.

Blinking, she quickly looked away from him. “I’m sorry,” he said, though he didn’t move an inch to cover himself. “I didn’t know you were here.”

“Why would you?” she asked. “I only live here. You, on the other hand…”

She allowed herself to look at his face. His brows were furrowed, his jaw was taut. “I spent the night with Van,” he informed her, his voice low and heavy. Nodding, she looked away again. “We’d been drinking,” he said. “I couldn’t drive all the way back to Brooklyn—”

“You don’t need to explain,” she said, raising her hand to stop him.

“—I didn’t even mean for anything to happen—”

She shut her eyes tightly. “Please don’t explain.”

He stopped. She gazed at him, at his perfect face. She couldn’t speak. There it was again, that familiar shortness of breath that she’d gotten when she was with him weeks before. Only this time, it wasn’t just his good looks that had her gasping for air. The immense disappointment settled on her chest. Disappointment at what? she asked herself. Had she expected something different? Was she hoping for another outcome? She realized that a small part of her was. A tiny part that she’d ignored for days upon days as she’d daydreamed of him constantly. How stupid of her.

Before either one of them could speak again, Van plodded out of the bedroom, hair unkempt, makeup smeared, and naked except for a skimpy, satin nighty that barely reached the back of her thighs. Maxie had to look away. “Here you are,” she said, going to Isaac. Even Van, three inches taller than Maxie, had to look up to him. She laced her arms around his waist and kissed his collarbone. “Good morning.”

Looking down at her with dark eyes, he mumbled, “Morning.”

“Maxie’s cooking you breakfast, huh?” She looked at her roommate and her eyes widened. “Maxie! What are you wearing?”

For the first time, Maxie realized that she was half naked. She looked down at her sweatshirt, just long enough to cover the swell of her behind, and her bare legs. She felt her face grow hot and shut her eyes for a moment, struggling to contain her overflowing humiliation and anger and jealousy. Van chuckled. “Look who’s coming out of her shell.”

Pulling the hem of the sweatshirt down, Maxie opened her eyes and met Isaac’s gaze. His stare was dark and unwavering, glued on her face and not budging. “Right. Well, I’m just going to go in my room,” she said, struggling to keep the emotion from her tone. “Good seeing you again, Isaac.” Moving past him, she added, “Not at all awkward.”

“I like your hair,” he said, his eyes following her past him. Another chuckle came from Van before Maxie disappeared into her room and shut the door behind her.

 

“She’s so shy,” Van told Isaac once Maxie was out of earshot. “I don’t understand it. One minute, she’s up on stage, twirling around in nothing but a leotard and tights, the next minute she’s walking around with skirts down to her knees and shirts buttoned all the way up to her freaking throat. She acts like people have never seen skin before.”

Isaac narrowed his eyes. Van had lost him after leotard. “She does what on stage?”

“She’s a dancer,” Van said with a one shoulder shrug. “She goes to Julliard. Didn’t I tell you?”

“No. You did, however, tell me that she wouldn’t be here.”

She shrugged again. “I thought she wouldn’t. Her and Alex must’ve argued or something.”

“Alex?”

“Her boyfriend.”

“She has a boyfriend?”

“Yeah—well. Sort of. I thought I told you.”

A bit annoyed, Isaac gently moved from her embrace. “No,” he repeated evenly.

Van went to the counter and picked up the bowl of batter. “Mm, pancakes,” she said, dipping her finger in and licking the sticky substance off of it. “Alex is a jerk, anyway. He’s no good for her, she’s so much better than him. She won’t admit it, though. She acts like he’s perfect. But I know she knows.”

“And how’s that?”

Van smirked. “Because they’ve been dating for almost six months and she still hasn’t slept with him.” She let out a wicked chortle. “Good for him. He’s an asshole. Everyone thinks because he swept her off to Europe for a month that he’s such a prize—”

“Europe?”

“Yeah, but ask her about it. Go ahead, ask her. She won’t tell you.”

Isaac glanced toward Maxie’s bedroom. “Why not?” he asked.

“Because she hated it, I bet. He was probably drunk the whole time or something. He’s such a jerk when he drinks, which is pretty often.” She took another finger-full of batter. “And he probably cheats on her, too. I mean, let’s be serious. The guy’s entire career revolves around beautiful women.”

“Maxie’s a beautiful woman,” he said, as casually as he knew how.

“Oh, I know. But she’s no model. I bet the only reason he’s stuck around this long is because he wants to sleep with her. He’s pretty successful. I’m sure he doesn’t hear no very often.”

“Have you told her this?”

“A million times, but what do I know?” She rolled her eyes. “She can do so much better. I mean, look at her. She’s so pretty.”

Stunning, thought Isaac.

“She’s smart.”

And funny.

“She dances, you know.”

Yes, now I know.

“And she’s an amazing cook. Anyway, I’m not too worried. He’s not the first guy she’s test-driven for a while, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. She’s too much of a romantic to ever really settle for someone like him. She wants a story like the ones in her romance novels. True love conquering all, and all that jazz. Prince Charming. Right now she’s just sorting her way through all the toads, I guess. Hey, are you hungry? I can throw on these pancakes if you want. Maxie usually cooks, but the hard part is done,” she said, raising the bowl.

“Actually,” Isaac said, “I’m going to head out.” Van frowned. “But I’ll be back,” he added, shooting another glance toward Maxie’s room.

Van followed him back into her bedroom and watched him with sad eyes as he dressed. “You’ll call me, right? I know you already got what you wanted, but…”

He scoffed. “You don’t know what I want, Van.” The truth was, he wasn’t even close to getting what he wanted. As a matter of fact, he was farther from it than ever. He kicked himself for getting so senseless the night before. His chances at the real prize were quite possibly shot.

She walked him to the front door and turned her face up for a kiss. He meant it to be a quick one, but she wrapped her arms around his head and held him in place. He opened his eyes, mid-kiss, and peered over her shoulder. Maxie stood there, hand on her belly, features contorted with dread.

Inhaling sharply, he untangled himself from Van’s grasp. She was breathing heavily and smiling widely. “Come back soon,” she said as he backed out of the apartment. He nodded and looked straight over her head at Maxie when he promised, “I will.”

 

NOW

Bea sat at her kitchen table with a sketchbook and colored pencils. “She wants me to incorporate lilies in here, too,” she said thoughtfully, admiring the vivid work before her. “Skulls and crosses and teddy bears and now she wants fucking lilies? What kind of tattoo is this?”

When Maxie didn’t reply, she put down her pen. “Max?” she said. Maxie stood facing the window, leaning against the sink with her head bowed. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Maxie said, turning around. For the first time in a week her face wasn’t red and puffy, her eyes weren’t swollen and glazed. “I think I’m going to cook. Are you hungry?”

“We can just order takeout. You don’t have to cook.”

She nodded. “I do. I don’t think I can take another night of pizza.”

“So Chinese it is.”

“I was thinking baked chicken, corn on the cob, and mashed potatoes?”

“Well, I won’t say no to that.”

Maxie laughed. The sensation of it emerging from her chest, the sound of it; it’d become unfamiliar. She was sure she’d lost the urge for good. She went to the refrigerator and pulled out a package of chicken breasts. “You’ll be proud of me,” she said. “After I left the hospital this morning, I went to the grocery store.”

“Wait a second,” Bea said, holding up her hand to stop Maxie. “This morning? As in, you left the hospital before visiting hours ended? And you didn’t come home and cry yourself to sleep afterwards? You’re right, I am proud.”

Maxie grinned. “Well, I had things to do. I went to see a graphic designer about cover designs for my cookbook. I’ve been saying I want to publish it forever, and I’ve been lagging.” She shrugged. “I guess I’m starting to realize life is too short to put things off.”

“I’m glad to hear something good’s come from all of this.”

Maxie nodded. “I also called Isaac’s aunt. It occurred to me that she had no way of knowing he’s even hurt.”

“Isaac has an aunt?”

“In Ohio. They don’t speak very often.”

“Is she coming to see him?”

“This weekend.”

“Hmm. Is Van nervous about meeting the family?”

Maxie lowered her gaze. “Er…” Bea raised an eyebrow. “Actually, I don’t think Van even knows about Aunt Jenny. Well, I know Van doesn’t know about Aunt Jenny.” Bea’s mouth fell open, but before she could reply, the doorbell rang. They both turned toward the sound. “Expecting someone?” Maxie asked.

“No,” Bea said, getting to her feet. “Alex again?”

Maxie rolled her eyes. “He stopped calling two days ago. I was hoping he got the message.”

“At least you sent the message. It only took Isaac getting shot in the head.” Bea pulled the door open and to Maxie’s relief, it wasn’t Alex.

To her dismay, it was Van.

She’d been avoiding Van for days, still unable face her without being overtaken by guilt and resentment and even more guilt because of the resentment. “Hi,” Van said, stepping inside. On her shoulder she wore a duffle bag, in her arms she carried a pillow. One of Isaac’s shirts covered it like a pillowcase. “Slumber party?”

“Van,” Maxie said, coming forward. “What are you doing here? Who’s with Isaac?”

Van shrugged. “He’s comatose. I figured he’d be okay by himself for one night.”

Maxie’s heart pace quickened, her voice grew shrill as she spoke. “What if he wakes up? The doctors say he can hear you, you know! If you’re there with him at night, he knows!”

“And what about you, Max? I haven’t even thought about you. Everything you went through that night, everything you saw.”

“I’m fine.”

“He’s fine.”

“I’m not dying.”

“Neither is he,” she pointed out. “Anymore. They took him off of life support today.” She forced a weak smile that didn’t comfort Maxie in the least. “Maxie,” she breathed. “Please, I just… I needed to get away from that hospital. I feel like I spend twenty-four hours, seven days a week there. He always has me. You always have Bea. need someone.”

Maxie exhaled and embraced her friend as another solid blow of guilt hit her in the gut. “Of course. I was just about to make dinner. Come in.”

Van followed Maxie and Bea back into the kitchen where she sat down at the table. “So, what are we having?” she asked.

“Baked chicken,” Maxie replied, setting the potatoes on the stove to boil.

“Isaac’s favorite,” Van said.

Steak was his favorite, but Maxie didn’t bother to correct her friend. “Maybe we can invite his aunt over for dinner sometime,” Bea said, not raising her eyes from the drawing she began working on again.

Maxie inhaled sharply, Van raised an eyebrow. “His aunt?”

“Yeah. Max, what did you say her name was?”

Maxie and Van exchanged glances, Van’s confused, Maxie’s guilty. “What aunt? Isaac has no family.”

“He has an aunt,” Bea said, dropping her pen to look, unblinking, at Van. She didn’t acknowledge Maxie glaring at her from across the kitchen.

“Max?” Van said, turning to Maxie but still staring questioningly at Bea.

Maxie turned back to the chicken. “He has an aunt, Van. In Ohio. She’s his mother’s older sister. Her name is Jenny.”

Van’s eyes widened, her mouth fell open. “Right. Aunt Jenny,” Bea said, picking up her pen and going back to her drawing.

Maxie sighed. Van stood up and went to her. “How do you know about her?”

“Well,” Maxie said, pushing the chicken aside and turning to face the corn on the cob. She wanted to face anything but Van’s questioning stare. “He told me about her.”

“He never told me about her.”

“They had a falling out, that’s why. They only speak once in a while. It wasn’t worth mentioning, probably.”

“Not worth mentioning to me, but worth mentioning to you?”

A nervous chuckle escaped her. “I don’t think it’s like that, Van.”

“Well, how did you contact her? Did you get her number out of his cell phone? Did he tell you his unlock code, too?” she demanded.

“No, of course not,” Maxie said evenly.

“How did you get in touch with her?”

“I looked her up.”

“How? Is there only one Jenny in the entire state of Ohio?” Van cried.

With a sigh, Maxie admitted, “I know where she lives.”

Van’s face dropped. What was that in her expression? Shock, anger, hurt? “How?”

“Remember when he had to drive to Ohio last year? And you had the shoot so he asked me to drive with him instead?” Van’s eyes drifted shut. She slowly shook her head. “We stayed at Jenny’s house while we were there. She was out of town, so I took the extra room.”

“He told me the house he grew up in burned down!” She raised her hands to her temples and leaned back against the counter.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Van. He asked me not to, it wasn’t my place—”

“No? Not your place as my best friend?”

“Van, it’s his business. It’s his life. They’re his secrets.”

“I’m his girlfriend! Why would he want to share that with you and not me? We’re in love, we have a future together! I don’t deserve to know about his past?” Before Maxie could reply, Van pivoted and stalked out of the kitchen. A moment later, she returned. “What else?” she demanded. “What else is he keeping from me?”

Maxie shook her head. “Nothing.” Everything. “I’m sure there’s nothing else.”

 

Van and Maxie lay together in Bea’s bed. It was after two in the morning, the air was silent, but neither of them slept. “Max,” Van finally whispered.

“Hmm?”

“When are you coming home?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s clean now,” she said.

No, it was never clean. That apartment will be forever contaminated by lies and secrets and betrayal. “I know.”

Van didn’t speak for a while. Maxie would’ve guessed she fell asleep, had it not been for her unsteady breathing. “Maxie.”

“Yes, Van?”

She exhaled heavily. “I’m sorry for yelling at you today. I’m just… so frustrated. I love him, you know? I love him so much. And all I want is for him to get better so we can keep living our lives. It’s all I think about. The day he’ll wake up, the day he’ll come home…” She paused. “To find out he’s keeping something like that from me… And you know about it.”

“I’m sorry, Van—”

“No, no. It’s not your fault. It was his choice to tell you, and just like you said, it wasn’t your place to tell me. But why wouldn’t he want to tell me? Why wouldn’t he want to share that with me? Now all I can do is wonder what else he’s keeping.”

Maxie shut her eyes tight. A hot tear found its way from beneath her eyelid and trailed down her cheek onto the pillow. “Nothing, Van.” Her words came out in a hushed, barely audible, whisper.

For a while, there was silence again, then Van said, “Detective Lake came by the hospital again today, looking for you.”

Maxie knew that. Lake had been looking for her for three days already. “Oh.”

“She doesn’t believe that I don’t know where you are anymore.”

“Just keep telling her that.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Maxie said.

“Because what?”

“Because I just can’t handle anything else right now.”

There was a short pause, and then Van: “She may know who broke in that night.”

“I can’t handle it, Van.”

“Okay.”

Maxie took Van’s hand, squeezed it, kissed it. “Go to sleep.”

“Okay.”

When Maxie fell asleep, she dreamt of Isaac. She was standing on the sidewalk, facing the street. Opposite her, on the other side, Isaac walked hand and hand with Van. He laughed as Van spoke animatedly, smiling widely and waving her hands around in unison with whatever story she was telling. For a while, Maxie simply stood there and watched. When he was with Van, that was what she did. She stood back and watched.

But then he turned and looked at her. Their eyes met, his smile faded, and he stared. Don’t look at meIsaac, she wanted to tell him. Not while she’s around. Don’t even look at me. But he stared and stared, and Van talked and talked. So Maxie waved. His eyebrow went up. He frowned and turned away, went back to listening to Van.

It was as if he didn’t even recognize her.

 

Maxie woke the next morning and went out onto Bea’s balcony. It was warm outside, the sun was high, the sky was perfectly clear. Maxie lay down flat on her back to stare up at it as she lit the butt of a joint that Bea had left in the ashtray.

Noelle sits on the grass, a smoke between her lips, a cup of tea at her fingertips, watching as Maxie, just six years old, twirls around in circles before her. Maxie looks up at the sky, impossibly blue and spotted with clouds. Her arms are outstretched, her purple skirt is flying up at her sides as she goes faster and faster, around and around and around.

Finally, she misses a step and tumbles over, falling flat on her back. She attempts to get up, but it’s as if the floor itself pulls her back down again.

‘Just lay there for a while, Max,’ Noelle calls, laughing. ‘Sometimes it’s best to just sit still when the rest of the world is spinning.’

“Max!” Van called, opening the balcony door. “Here you are. What are you doing?”

“Waiting for the world to stop spinning, Van,” she replied.

Van simply stood there a moment, watching her. And then she stepped out onto the balcony and lowered herself to the floor, too, taking Maxie’s hand. “I don’t condone you doing drugs, you know,” she said after a while.

Maxie sighed. “I know.”

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